'Growing Panes' for LCD Production

Increasingly large master sheets of glass used in the production of LCD flat screens may soon slow production because of a very basic (and very low-tech) problem. According to a Wall Street Journal dispatch from Hong Kong, engineers are quickly realizing that flat-screen components do have size limits, at least from a mass production point of view.

Flat screen technology requires delicate and very thin fabrications, with sensitive chemicals being pressed between glass panes that may be less than a millimeter thick for LCDs. But the looming production problem is a lot less complicated: If the trend in larger sizes continues, the substrates (glass sheets) will become too large and cumbersome to be reliably shipped to other plants used to cut TV screens from them. Some manufacturers have even considered relocating glass processing plants directly adjacent to the screen-cutting operations, but in many cases this was not feasible.

The most economical business model dictates the more screens that can be cut from a single massive glass sheet, the more cost efficiency per unit. The current generation of glass sheeting (the sixth generation, if you're keeping count), yields up to eight 32-inch screen cuttings per sheet. The emerging seventh generation (now underway in South Korea) yields a dozen screens per sheet, and efficiency increase of 50 percent. But the larger the flat screen, usually the bigger the profit margin, and the current worldwide demand for larger and larger screens above 32-inch is high.

Samsung plans to market LCD screens up to 100-inch (mostly for corporate and commercial clients). But conventional wisdom at the moment seems to favor 60-inch as the largest screen most consumers will elect to go, if that. Prices aside, many households, especially in Asia, simply don't have enough room for very large screens, even if they are flat.